Israel’s new coalition government

Middle East expert Ian Lustick discusses why this power play is happening now and what the coalition government means for the future of Israeli politics.

A man with short gray hair wearing a dark blue suit jacket, white shirt and light blue tie is seen in profile in front of an Israeli flag
An upcoming vote in Israel’s parliament could end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power. (Image: Press service of the president of the Russian Federation)

Israel’s parliament is set to vote on a new coalition government on Sunday. If it is approved, Israel will be led by someone other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in more than a decade.

Netanyahu has called the new coalition the “fraud of the century” and the political transition comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Israeli military and the Palestinian group Hamas; it’s been just over two weeks since a cease-fire ended 11 days of violence.

Penn Today spoke with Middle East expert Ian Lustick to find out why this ouster is happening now and what the coalition government means for the future of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Why is this coalition seeking to oust him at this moment in time?

Israel is as divided on Netanyahu as America was divided on Trump. His devoted followers believe he is God’s gift to Israel and the Jewish people who defends pure and patriotic Jews against leftist and secularist liberals—the well-educated liberal traitors to the Jewish nation. Meanwhile his opponents see him as a mortal danger to Israel in general and Israeli democracy in particular and as the worst thing that has happened to the country in decades. Netanyahu has been charged and indicted on multiple counts of corruption. His ruthless tactics and flagrant opportunism have alienated enough middle-of-the-road Israelis so that, taken together, they outnumber his supporters.

The coalition is the first to include an Islamist party. What’s the significance of this and what could it mean for the future?

Now that no one believes there is a possibility of negotiating a two-state solution, ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ on that issue can cooperate against Netanyahu. Otherwise, if there were important decisions to be made that might end Israel’s grip on Palestinian territories, this coalition could not exist, no matter how much its member parties might hate Netanyahu. 

The inclusion of the Islamic List party and the support of the larger Joint (Arab) List for the effort to oust the speaker of the parliament (who is seeking to block procedures leading to a new government) show not only how desperate many Israeli Jews are to get rid of the prime minister but also show what democracy does best. When push comes to shove, prejudices can be overcome by the desperate desire to get enough votes to remain in office or to gain office. This is the same dynamic that led George Wallace to abandon segregationism and win a fourth term as Alabama governor.

In addition to the Arab party, the incoming coalition would have eight female ministers as well as conservatives, leftists, and centrists. What could the diversity of the coalition mean for Israeli citizens?

To survive, this government would have to focus on small improvements in life for all Israel’s citizens and, perhaps, even for the millions of Arab noncitizens living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. This turn toward practical matters and away from ‘annexation’ or ‘peace’ could well please the Biden administration, which doesn’t want this issue to interfere with its domestic priorities and could hold the key to a period of relative political calm. That would be welcomed by most Israelis who have suffered through four elections in two years.

What needs to happen for the coalition to succeed in ousting Netanyahu?

The Knesset has to be reconvened—that may require a new speaker to be chosen—and then it must vote to have confidence in the new government. To do so it needs to retain the votes of all the 61 members of parliament who are on paper committed to do so.

What do you predict Netanyahu’s next moves will be if he is removed?

Lots of demagogic rabble-rousing. Death threats are already proliferating against both right- and left-wing politicians and their families in the ‘change’ coalition. Netanyahu has issued dog-whistling statements that on the surface oppose violence but signal his ‘understanding’ of those who are threatening it.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what’s happening in Israeli politics?

That the end of the two-state solution has, ironically, made it possible for a coalition to form that can finally break Netanyahu’s hold on the country.

Ian Lustick holds the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lustick’s latest boo,k “Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality,” was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.